Flood of pork buyers want sow housing changes

Companies pledge to stop buying from farms with gestation stalls
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Yet another Fortune 500 company is pushing its pork suppliers to abandon individual stalls for pregnant sows.

The Sept. 24 announcement by ConAgra, which boasts that its products can be found in 97 percent of U.S. homes, is remarkable, in part, because such announcements have become so commonplace. More than two dozen food producers or retailers—including fellow giants McDonald’s, Kroger, and Aramark—have made similar commitments during 2012.

Pigs in gestation crates
Photos courtesy of the National Pork Board

ConAgra officials said their “long-standing commitment to the humane treatment and handling of animals” led them to set a 2017 deadline for pork suppliers to provide plans to eliminate the use of gestation stalls.

The flood of commitments this year follows a trickle of changes over the previous decade and represents both changes in state laws and shifts in company purchasing habits. For example, Burger King committed in April to buying only from pork producers who have plans to end their use of gestation crates, but the company has committed since 2007 to buying part of its pork supply from gestation stall–free facilities.

Pigs uncrated

David G. Fikes, senior director of consumer and community affairs and social responsibility for the Food Marketing Institute, thinks altruism and competition are among the motives behind the recent push for the pork industry to abandon individual stalls. But he said some companies might have acted because they expect advocacy organizations will create a public outcry about such stalls.

Fikes asked retail food company representatives in the FMI’s animal agriculture task force who was pushing for the change. “To a person” they cited nongovernmental advocacy organizations.

As they scrutinize their food dollars, consumers are also paying attention to other ethical dimensions of the production-consumption chain.

Raymond Anthony, PhD, an ethics adviser to the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee

One such organization, the Humane Society of the United States, is frequently cited as a supporter when companies announce their opposition to gestation stalls. Matthew Prescott, the organization’s food policy director, said these commitments are the culmination of years of work led by his organization.

“Certainly, by all accounts, HSUS has been helping drive this change within the industry,” he said.

Driving the change

The typical gestation stall is about 2 feet wide by 7 feet long and able to hold a 660-pound sow, according to a swine welfare fact sheet from the National Pork Board.

Individual stalls are used to house about 80 percent of pregnant sows in the U.S., according to survey results announced in June at the World Pork Expo. In Europe, the stalls are supposed to be gone by January 2013. The European Commission threatened in April that it would use legal powers at its disposal against those who do not adopt more “welfare friendly” housing systems by the deadline.

The National Pork Board has written that use of individual housing, which includes both stalls and individual pens, minimizes aggression and injury, reduces injury to farm workers, and lets those workers manage and monitor the sows more easily. The AVMA policy “Pregnant Sow Housing” lists similar advantages, but it also indicates the stalls restrict expression of normal behaviors. The HSUS argues that breeding sows suffer during their years of confinement in stalls.

Raymond Anthony, PhD, an ethics adviser to the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee, thinks food retailers and producers may be deciding against stall use because societal and ethical values have become more important considerations within the companies. Company leaders want to shape the discussion about food policy and regulation rather than leave the decisions to consumers and advocates.

He sees the success in 2008 of California Proposition 2, which will prohibit use of gestation stalls and certain other livestock housing systems in the state by 2015, as evidence consumers are paying attention to animal welfare issues.

“We’re seeing a larger segment of the population not only tuning into questions about the welfare of animals but also to the shape of our agriculture from plow to plate, more broadly,” Dr. Anthony said. “As they scrutinize their food dollars, consumers are also paying attention to other ethical dimensions of the production-consumption chain.

“They’re thinking more in terms of citizenship values and issues of fairness.”

For nearly a decade, members of the public have been increasingly considering how to raise livestock ethically, on a large scale, and at a low cost, Dr. Anthony said. They have pushed for foods that are “humane,” “organic,” “free-range,” “local,” and “sustainable,” terms that imply benefits for animals, consumers, or the environment. Gestation stalls were adopted largely because of their production advantages.

Paul B. Thompson, PhD, the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University, similarly thinks interest in food production and sources has risen over the past 20 years and expanded dramatically in the past 10, aided by popular publications such as Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” But Dr. Thompson expressed doubt the average person is familiar with gestation stall housing or is as aware of gestation stalls as of, say, the cages used to house egg-laying hens.

However, Dr. Thompson said increasing numbers of consumers are interested in where their food comes from and how it is raised, and many have concerns about the growth of industrial-style food production.

Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, doubts the HSUS would have to advocate in company shareholder meetings or lobby members of Congress if the public were to broadly oppose use of gestation stalls. Rather, he said, the public trusts farmers to make the right decisions for animals. He thinks most people who eat pork do not focus on gestation stall use when buying pork chops or ordering a bacon cheeseburger.

Maybe retailers are finding it easier to follow competitors’ decisions on gestation stall housing, Dr. Burkgren said, but he doubts many are considering sow welfare. As more companies oppose gestation stalls, competitors receive increased attention and pressure.

Producers, in conjunction with veterinarians, are the animal welfare experts.

Dr. Paul Sundberg, vice president of science and technology, National Pork Board

Fikes noted that advocacy organizations have, in part, induced publicly traded companies to pay increased attention to animal welfare by becoming stockholders and adding proposals to board meeting dockets.

Prescott said officials with one restaurant chain told him the company received unprecedented positive feedback from customers when it began buying gestation crate–free pork. Restaurant patrons are interested in animal welfare, as are legislators.

“This right now is one of the Humane Society of the United States’ top priorities, a top priority for food companies—it’s a top priority for many legislators,” Prescott said. “There are, right now, several additional state bills that would see gestation crates banned.”

Promises made

Prescott said it is difficult to estimate how much of the nation’s pork supply is sold through the companies that have made pledges against gestation stalls. But he called those companies a “who’s who” of the food industry.

“I think it’s clear to anybody looking at that list that pretty much the entire industry needs to change over the next three to 10 years in order to meet this demand,” Prescott said.

Dr. Paul Sundberg, vice president of science and technology for the National Pork Board, acknowledged the number of such commitments was substantial, but he disagrees that the industry has reached a tipping point. He does not know why retailers are making decisions on sow housing except to benefit their companies.

“Producers, in conjunction with veterinarians, are the animal welfare experts,” he said.

Fikes expects the stalls will endure and retailers will reduce, not eliminate, use of stalls because of the advantages for pork producers and the costs of change. He noted that Food Marketing Institute members have a spectrum of positions on sow stalls. His organization has not taken one.

Developing the best housing

Dr. Anthony thinks the public increasingly wants to talk about what animal production systems the nation should support, a decision with “social, ethical, and environmental justice implications.” The decision also carries a challenge to fairly distribute benefits and burdens. But beyond the debate about the most animal-friendly housing and production systems, more discussion needs to focus on the nature and effect of swine production’s vertical integration, the consolidation of marketing and production steps that Dr. Anthony said has led to a monolithic food production culture.

The ethics discussions need to include a review of the scale of production and its effects on animals, workers, communities, and natural resources as well as the relationships among science, ethics, and values in promoting humane standards, he said. The scientific and veterinary communities need to consider housing systems from the sow’s point of view and stop using simple housing categories such as “group” and “stall.”

He suggests instead paying more attention to the needs of specific swine breeds and the means to improve sows’ lives, such as minimizing aggression and competition.

Dr. Thompson said further study could show what efforts animals would be willing to expend to escape a situation, providing measurements that could guide animal welfare decisions, he said. For example, button-pushing persistence can provide a sense of how much a sow wants to escape from housing and whether the sow is uncomfortable.

Dr. Anthony has seen increasing numbers of healthy partnerships among advocacy organizations, industry, government, and veterinarians and other scientists. Those who want to make improvements need to overcome polemic rhetoric, fact distortion, and misrepresentation and be mindful of the interests of, and challenges to, smaller pork producers, he said.

“The public and farm animals deserve conscientious science and considered ethical input as part of a more just animal welfare policymaking process,” Dr. Anthony said.

But whether the pork industry will have to switch sow housing types could be decided by the margin-driven meatpackers and processors, Dr. Burkgren said. This year, pork producers may lose about $60 on each pig, partly because of the effect of this summer’s drought on the cost of feed. Dr. Burkgren said producers are focused on keeping their businesses alive, and for some, the costs to immediately switch housing systems would be impossible.

Calling a truce

The debate over gestation stall use could have consequences beyond sow housing.

Food retailers have largely declared a truce over food safety, Fikes said. They routinely and freely share safety information with competitors, understanding that, with food safety concerns, “If it hurts one retailer, it hurts everyone in the entire industry.”

The recent attention to gestation stalls has led some Food Marketing Institute members to call for a similar truce on animal welfare.

“I’m hearing more retailers say we’re not helping promote good industry policy by continuing to compete, and make others look bad by trying to make ourselves look good in this arena,” Fikes said.